And Tony Burke is the Minister for Population. Let's talk big picture. Just how big should Australia become?
It's a huge question, one that's been occupying the mind of the country. The Federal Government deems this matter so important it's finally appointed Australia's first Population Minister, Tony Burke.
G'day, Steve. Good to be here.
Tony, just appointed. If I can cut - cut straight to the chase - and this really is - I know it's a question that's difficult to answer. And I know it's one that you'll seek not to answer. And I know there's so many variables relating to this, infrastructure, water, immigration and all the lot.
But by 2050, what is the number that Australia should have as its population?
Well I'm not going to dodge it. I'll tell you square.and my answer to that and is that I don't know. It's with all the reasons that you just gave, this is something where there are a huge number of variables. The portfolio's only existed now for a handful of weeks.
And to take a new area of policy and say, okay, the first thing I can do is give an answer as to where we're going to be in 40 years' time, I'd be bluffing if I pretend I could answer that head on.
When will you know?
To some extent, I don't think you ever know precisely what the future holds. Anyone making a 40 year projection, I reckon is being pretty brave. And here's the reason, Steve.
In some parts of the country at the moment, we've got communities where they've been seriously talking about having to truck in water. So there's some parts of Australia where, if you want to talk carrying capacity, we're pretty much there.
Some parts of Australia where you can say, even if infrastructure were to improve, you realistically couldn't have more people in those parts of the country.
There are however, some areas where you could have more people if the infrastructure was there and there are other areas where there are employers and major projects for Australia that are desperately crying out for more workers.
I see a lot of that in the work that I do with Australia's farmers and the problems that they've had with labour, particularly since the mines started taking their workforce from them.
We need to consider all of those sorts of variables, to predict where we're going to be in three years' time, is something that we have to be able to start planning for and we haven't been able to do previously.
But to jump ahead and claim that I can project some sort of figure that's going to be accurate in 40 years' time, I reckon I'd be kidding you and your listeners if I pretend that that sort of number could be easily arrived at.
And Tony, that's understood. You've just taken over the portfolio. And there's a whole issue as to why it's taken so long to establish a population minister and why do it only months out from out of an election. I'll come to that in a second.
But what I do want to - you're one of the sharpest ministers in the Government. You're one of the sharpest guys that the Government's got.
What do you have to do to translate this into a meaningful portfolio and one that's not just about, I don't know, there's variables, there's all these inputs, you know, it's dependent on all these other portfolios?
What do you have to do to make this a fair-dinkum portfolio, get numbers about it so that it has traction?
The two words that I reckon we're going to need to develop are measures and levers. The measures - what are the things that we actually can measure to be able to work out limits and to be able to work out opportunities. Measure employment demand. Measure environmental damage that can happen, for example, the urban sprawl up and down the coast. There's some significant environmental issues there that we want to work through.
Measure capacity constraints, particularly water, but not just that. People locked in gridlock have some views on capacity constraints for traffic. And we need to measure the different sorts of methods of urban planning that you might want to do.
You get those measurements, which currently for some of them we have, for some of them we don't at all, and then you link in what are the policy levers you use. Now a lot of people have viewed the portfolio as though the only policy lever we have available to us is immigration. It's part of it, but it's certainly not the only one.
A lot of congestion that we have, throughout Australia, has very little to do with immigration, it's because people have merged from one part of Australia to another. So there's different policy levers and incentives that may or may not be able to be used in that area.
And then there's a level of planning, which, I think we've got to be honest - we've never engaged in all that effectively. What we tend to have done is wait for a whole heap of people to fill up at one part of the country. That puts pressure on infrastructure.
And then we get a late political demand that now we're going to have to build a new highway there or put some extra transport in there. And we're always playing catch-up. We never seem to get ahead of the game.
And one of the things that I think is interesting, it's a word you used when you referred to the creation of the portfolio, where you've said finally we've created it. And I think that's true. It's not a case of, why has it been so far into this term? I think the question is why has it been so far into the history of Australia?
Because Australians, whether it's been around boardrooms or at barbecues, have not hesitated to have views saying this could be planned so much better than it has been to date.
And for all the talk about wanting to plan where we'll be in 40 years' time, I reckon if we can plan five to 10 years in advance, it will be a whole lot better than how we've been doing it for a very long time.
But to plan 10 years in advance is to plan 40 years in advance when you're talking population, because of the lag on things. Kids growing up. People growing old. Building hospitals. Building infrastructure. Relocating entire communities to regional Australia. Building railways to the edges of cities that are already exploding.
Isn't your job, as a Population Minister - when you get to the end of your term and you retire, you can look at it two ways. You can either have on your CV, I was Population Minister and that went well. Or I developed a road map. I put in place a road map as to not only what Australia should be, where we should go, which means where we should physically live, what the population should be and how we should get there. And really what you're saying is I need to get some information.
But don't you quickly need to put in place your road map? That is what we should build, where we start to have to encourage people to live, whether it's into regional centres. Is Melbourne too big? How do we get people out of Melbourne? All those sorts of issues. If you, as Federal Minister for the Population, can't do that, how the hell is anyone else going to do it?
Yeah. A lot of those issues that you talk about, match with what I'm saying about having accurate methods of being able to measure congestion and then having the policy levers that you can apply, whether it be decentralisation, whether it be better urban planning, wherever you want to land.
I just think the debate's been about 2050, what's the magic number?
And let's go back, forget 40 years into the future, go 20 years into the past. If we were making projections from 20 years ago, we would never have predicted the mining boom and we would never have predicted the drought.
One being the biggest driver for wanting more people and the other being the biggest capacity constraint on how many people we can carry. Twenty years ago, half that time, we wouldn't have been able to predict the two biggest impacts on population policy that we have at the moment.
But there are some issues where the 40 year projection is relevant. It's certainly relevant to ageing population and issues like that.
And the extent to which taxpayers are going to be able to properly provide for the number of people by then who will be outside of the workforce.
There are some areas where it is relevant. But certainly in terms of what parts of the country will the jobs be in, I reckon we'd be stretching it to pretend that we can nail it for every part of the policy.
So there'll be some areas where I agree the sort of road map that you talk about is going to be possible. But what I'm very wary of is, for an area where there's been zero coordination in the past, aiming that in 12 months' time, I will have developed the 40 year road map. I just think, if you aim too far beyond where you've ever been, then there's going to be a whole series of weaknesses .
That's true, Tony. But equally, if you allow things - as long as you're not developing that, everything keeps going on in its random way as it does and the so-called population debate reduces to an asylum seeker boat coming in full of 12 people. And that equals a population debate and things get focused on that and the worst possible outcome.
I appreciate the point you make there. And there's going to be a level of balance.
At the same time, I'm starting at a point where the level of planning on these issues has been zero. And all that's ever happened, is that every 12 months, in the budget, we announce an immigration policy on permanent migration for the next 12 months.
And that's as far as we've ever gone. What I want to see us do is to be able to prepare and plan as far into the future as we reasonably can.
But it needs to be flexible enough that, if you had something in place 20 years ago, as we should have, it would have be able to adjust when the drought hit and would have been able to adjust for the mining boom.
Tony, look, thanks for your time. We really appreciate it. Good luck with the portfolio. I think it's probably the most important portfolio that exists in the country. That is population. It encompasses everything. And we look forward to talking to you over the next few weeks and months.
That's Tony Burke, Australia's first Population Minister.